Healthcare Providers Have Feelings, Too


Posted to Nurse Safety, Nursing, Nursing Jobs, Nursing News

Gabriel Blaj -

While this Op-Ed that appeared in the New York Times is written from the perspective of a doctor, a lot of it applies to various healthcare providers who have more information than the patient does.

The doctor, Danielle Ofri, writes of a patient she calls Julia, with whom she had a lot in common; both were about the same age, both were mothers with two young children. They were even about the same height and the same build.

But only one was facing a death sentence. Julia had a serious heart condition that meant she would die, fairly soon.

Ofri writes of the recent findings that physicians are not always open or honest with patients within this context. An article in the journal Health Affairs found that more than one in 10 physicians had told a patient something that was not true within the past year, and almost one in five had failed to reveal a medical error. More than half had put a more positive spin on a prognosis than was warranted.

Ofri expresses some surprise that the numbers are so low, but also questions how nefarious the reasons behind those numbers actually are. While she knows that she should have gone ahead and told everything to her patient, her own emotions got in the way.

When Julia walked out of our hospital without full knowledge of her prognosis, I had been derelict in my duty as her physician. I was fully aware that my job was to have “open and honest” communication with her, in a “patient centered” manner. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to tell this young mother that she was going to die.

It could be that I over-identified with my patient, or that I let my emotions get the better of me, or that I was an out-and-out wimp. No doubt all played some role, but I wasn’t the only doctor who struggled with the truth. Everyone responsible for her care — intern, resident, medical attending, cardiology fellow, cardiology attending — independently fell short of the Charter on Medical Professionalism. Young, old, male, female, touchy-feely, egotistical, blustery alike — not one of us could say those words to her face.

When it comes to medical error, doctors have an even harder time coming out with the truth. There is, of course, the well-founded fear of malpractice litigation. Momentum is growing for legislation to protect doctors who acknowledge error and apologize. But beyond the fear of malpractice, there is the larger issue of shame at failing at your job, of letting a patient down, that makes you want to hide. It took me two decades to speak publicly about my first major medical error.

I was one week out of my internship at the time, and my patient was admitted nearly comatose with what is called diabetic ketoacidosis, from a severe lack of insulin. After we’d brought him back from the brink and could finally turn off the intravenous short-acting insulin drip, I committed the cardinal error of neglecting to inject him with long-acting insulin. He promptly barreled downhill again. A senior resident rescued him before he had a cardiac arrest, then screamed her lungs out at me in front of the entire emergency room staff.

I never mustered the courage to tell the patient what happened. So great was my shame that it was 20 years before I could begin the “open and honest” communication that the situation deserved.

Are doctors simply cowards? Do our own existential fears paralyze us? Human beings, by nature, prefer to avoid horrible truths, and denial may be our most powerful survival skill. Doctors are no more nor less immune to this, and to the basic human drives of empathy and pity, than anyone else.

By now, even the most hard-core, old-school doctors recognize that emotions are present in medicine at every level, but the consideration of them rarely makes it into medical school curriculums, let alone professional charters. Typically, feelings are lumped into the catch-all of stress or fatigue, with the unspoken assumption that with enough gumption these irritants can be corralled.

The emotional layers in medicine, however, are far more pervasive. Emotions have been described by the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio as the “continuous musical line of our minds, the unstoppable humming …” This basso continuo thrums along, modulating doctors’ actions and perceptions, while we make a steady stream of conscious medical decisions that have direct consequences for our patients. Emotions can overshadow clinical algorithms, quality control measures, even medical experience. We may never fully master them, but we must at least be conscious of them and of how they can sometimes dominate the symphony of our actions.

Julia did eventually get the truth of her diagnosis, at her first post-discharge clinic visit. The actual moment was — as expected — horrible. It took several tries for us to get the words on the table. Voices choked, eyes brimmed — and that was just the doctors. Julia was more stoic. She nodded slowly, very slowly, as she pieced it all together. The quiet that followed felt like a licking of the wounds for all parties. All wasn’t sunny and optimistic, but there was a sense of reality, and now the planning could begin.

Why did it take us so long to tell her? It might have been that we doctors first had to come to terms with the diagnosis ourselves — however selfish that might sound. Perhaps, unconsciously, we were trying to give Julia breathing room. But all this may have been mere justification to make us feel better. The fact is that we didn’t tell her the whole truth, up front, as we should have.

I’d like to say that I’d handle the situation better now, with another decade of clinical experience under my belt, but I’m not sure. Today, at least, when my medical team faces the prospect of giving bad news or admitting a medical error, I try to help my students and interns pay attention to the basso continuo running underneath. I try to point out when our emotions might be impeding us, and when, as sometimes happens, they might be assisting us in caring for our patients. Doctors can’t — and shouldn’t — eradicate the emotions that grease the wheels of patient care. But being alert to them can help us minimize where we fall short, and maximize where we succeed.